When first I got sick, it was not on my mind. I was profoundly ill and the pain I was in preoccupied me. My first psychiatrist got me on my feet and I returned to school. I was young and had several brief encounters. Then I became an adult and the encounters were fewer between. I moved to a small town in northern Wisconsin to be near my parents. The romantic pickings were slim. I was widely known as a young man with mental illness who clung to his parents for support. I attended their parties but no one else’s. I was not popular in the party scene of the younger crowd. I hung out at the bar. One resident of the town said I did nothing else. That was my life, golf with my parents, a lackluster performance at my father’s lumber yard, and dinner parties at their home. I was protected by my mother. I was 35 years old. I had two or three sexual encounters in the twelve years I lived up north. When I came back to the Cities, after my father’s death, I grew up. Suddenly, I had to love the woman to consummate the relationship. My love life went further to Hell. I had sex once in the last seventeen years. I loved her. Right now, with a book being published, I am too busy for a girlfriend. After two heart attacks, I am no longer the total package. The girl would have to be very understanding.
My family gathered around me when I got sick. My father threw away a lucrative banking career and moved to the north woods to help me. He thought living would be easier for me up there. My mother played golf to keep her sanity and listened to me rage. My brother took me on every downhill skiing, fishing, and duck hunting trip possible. My sister got married five years before she wanted to. My uncle had me to dinner countless times to discuss literature. My cousin took me sailing and included me with his friends at dinner parties. My family saved my bacon. Today, I don’t see them much. My brother and I still fish, hunt, and ski. My sister lives far away. My parents and uncle are gone. My cousin has a family of his own. The rest of my family, when we get together for rare reunions, views me the way they saw me before I got sick. I was the oldest cousin and the head of the family. To some, I was a black sheep. I go to my brother’s house only once a year for Christmas. Our family is close but there have been some fallings out. I have not talked to my sister in two years. We have a long way to go to repair the damage caused by my illness. We are getting on in years. My brother and I enjoy robust health but my sister, I have heard from my aunt, is hurting. Time and work heal everything.
They are indispensable. “We don’t grow alone,” my first doctor said. We get out of our heads with our friends. We get support from them. The time we spend with them is precious. I have made friends who were not part of my high school circle. They are more accepting of me than my high school crowd. My new friends know about my illness but enjoy my compony anyway. I get the feeling I am shunned by my old crowd. I do not see the old gang often. I see my new friends all the time. One of my new friends, who has become my best friend, I see every week. We attend an A.A. meeting together. I met other new friends through my handball league and others through A.A. Today I have about seven close friends, people I can count on if I get in trouble. I don’t know what I would do without them.
I take a small dose of Geodon. It is good for anxiety and schizophrenia. I take Depakote too. It is for bipolar disorder. I have no side effects from these drugs, although they are beginning to cause a tremor in my left hand. My doctor prescribed Ginkgo Biloba to counteract this. Geodon makes me productive, a nice habit for a writer or a man who is active by nature. On Depakote, I have not had a manic episode in twenty years. I have been on other drugs, or cocktails of them: Thorazine, Haldol, Resperdal, and Stelazine for schizophrenia and lithium for bipolar disorder. The only drug of this group I liked was Stelazine. It gave me an erection. Thorazine made me salivate and shuffle. Haldol made my knuckles drag. Lithium made me defecate in my pants. I had a manic episode while taking it. I have been on Geodon for fifteen years. It helps me sleep. Good drug. I would be institutionalized without it.
I am no expert on sleep studies. I relate here how sleep was for me before I came out the other end of my schizophrenia. When I first got sick in 1974, I had terrible nightmares. I dreamed of my body being torn apart like plastic. As my illness progressed, I was finally hospitalized. I got worse, not better, My dreams continued. Even a year ago, when I was more or less healthy, I had nightmares of the property of our cabin up north being invaded by alien spaceships. Or I dreamed of murderers taking over our duck hunting point. Sometimes I had happy dreams, of my relationship with my sister and brother or downhill skiing on difficult ski runs. Often, I had insomnia. There is a diner by my apartment building I walked to when the insomnia got bad. I drank coffee and talked to the cook at three o’clock in the morning. Today, I sleep like a baby. My dreams are pleasant but I still get an occasional nightmare. My mind heals when I dream. Last night, I got eight hours of sleep. This made for a great day at work, where I am a cashier at Walgreens. Had plenty of energy to give back to my customers. A good night’s sleep is so important to getting better.
Today, my story was written by someone else, instead of me.. In front of a microphone, tape recorder, voice recognition system, and an interviewer, I related the history of my mental illness as best I could. The interview was part of a new program of the Minneapolis VA first modeled in Madison WI. Madison has amassed 5,000 interviews so far. The interviewer asked about my military experience and my new book. He wanted to hear the good things in my life, not the bad things. I equated my illness to Auschwitz and he made a note of that. I told him about the possible causes of the illness: my pushy mother, my genes, my behavior, bad jobs, an event in the military, my youth. The interviewer was a positive man by nature and we bonded. He will write up my story, with a limit of three pages, and put it in my medical records. He told me to tell him what I wanted my doctors to know.
I get my treatment for my schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at the VA. The skill of their doctors and nurses is excellent. I get my drugs there too for a small copayment. I live on Social Security Retirement and my income from a two-day-a-week job at Walgreens, where I am a cashier. I get a small check for a parachute injury incurred in the Army. I use a credit card for most of my transactions and constantly go in the hole. If I retired, I would b hard pressed to pay off my credit card debt and have enough money for a cup of coffee. My credit card debt is $5,000. I put all my income on my credit cards and use the cards to buy what I need. I am frugal, except for my use of the vending machines in my hi-rise. I buy a lot of Cokes and bottles of water. My membership to the YMCA, where I play handball, is free on Silver Sneakers, I ride the bus for free on a service connected VA ID card. I pay $240 a month for a meal program that also does my laundry and cleans my apartment once a week. My rent is $360 for a beautiful, recently renovated apartment. Every Monday, I join ten or so A.A. members, men and women, for dinner at a Greek restaurant before a meeting. I live like a millionaire.
I advocate action to get well but believe in doing nothing, too. The mind heals when it is at rest. I have a theory that mentally ill people use all their strength to get well when they just stare out the window. It explains why we don’t get big jobs. Our effort goes into our recovery, not our tasks. It explains our reputation for talking too much. We talk in a psychiatrist’s office so we talk outside of it. We socialize to excess. It’s better than isolating. Socializing is a step above doing nothing. It’s okay to do nothing. Enjoy life. However, don’t do it all day. Then it is sloth. The mentally ill can enjoy an active life. Right now, it’s ten o’clock in the morning and I have not done a thing. I allowed my mind and emotions to heal. I worked hard yesterday at Walgreens and need a rest.
I am mentally ill and nobody knows it, unless I tell them. I have had many customer service jobs since i got sick, from many front desk jobs, to pushing wheelchairs, to cashiering. No one knows I have schizoid affective disorder. True, I have outgrown much of it. But even 50 years ago, when it was full blown, people accepted me for who I was. The stigma seems to be in the eyes of the medical profession. They warn us never to tell our boss at work we have mental problems. It could affect the duties we get or our promotions. Everyone at my job at Walgreens knows I am schizophrenic. Last week, I told people in my church I was mentally ill. No one knew. The funny thing is, they treat me the same now as they did before I told them. I’m out of the closet. The stigma is baloney.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said to treat every job you have like it the last job on earth.. Your performance will set your course for the rest of your life. He meant menial jobs too. I had a psychiatrist who hated the word menial. He was right. People with big jobs hate them and people with menial jobs love them. And vice versa. I have had 46 jobs since high school, most minimum wage. Some I hated. Some I loved. I quit the ones I hated and the ones that went sour. Right now, I’m a cashier at Walgreens. I’m proud of my work an intend to stay on the job as long as my health holds up. I like the money, it gets me out of the house, and I am part of something bigger than myself. I like teamwork. It gets me out of my head. I like going to work.